Lost in Babyland
Patti trembled as she knelt and placed a bouquet of flowers from her garden on Mac’s grave. She gazed at his picture encased in plastic above his name on the headstone. Her lower lip quivered, and tears rolled down her cheeks and into the lines around her mouth. She rested her head on the grave beside the flowers and wept.
“Oh, Mac, I’m not any good at being alone,” she said. “It’s been almost a year, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
The sun had set, but the earth was still warm. The warmth helped Patti feel close to Mac as her mind wandered back over their forty-two years together, and she remembered the joy of being with him. For a moment, she imagined him beside her and felt his touch.
A chill swept over her body, the same chill she had felt the night Mac died in his sleep beside her. She was reminded once more that he was gone, and she was indeed alone. In a burst of tears, she got up and hurried away, stumbling between headstones as she made her way to her car on the cemetery road.
She made one turn in the road after another, hoping each one would lead to the cemetery gate. When she passed the spot where she had been parked a second time, she stopped the car, turned off the ignition, and rested her head on the steering wheel.
“Oh, God, please help me! I don’t remember how to get out of here,” she said, sobbing.
No sooner had she spoken than she heard a knock on the car window. She looked out and saw a young boy with deep-set blue eyes and a concerned expression on his face. She wiped the tears from her eyes and face, pushed her graying hair back, and lowered the window.
“Young man, I’m lost,” she said. “Where am I?”
The boy pointed at a sign on a pole at the edge of the road. “You’re in Babyland,” he said.
Patti got out of the car and looked up at the sign with Babyland printed on it. She glanced at a white marble memorial a few yards away with an inscription that read, Our Little Lambs.
“My name is Scotty,” the boy said. “What’s yours?
“Patti McAllen. Can you tell me how to get to the cemetery gate?”
The boy gave Patti directions, which she repeated to make sure she understood them.
“What are you doing out here this time of night?” she asked. “Where are your parents?”
“My parents are not here. I’m alone and waiting,” the boy replied.
“Waiting for what?”
“To be reborn.”
Patti reached out to touch the boy. “What do you mean, reborn?
The boy backed away. “Tell me about the joys of life,” he said.
“The joys of life. Tell me about yours.”
“Now? Out here? You can’t be serious!”
Patti felt awkward, but at the same time, she was drawn to the boy. “Well, there’s a lot to tell, and it’s late,” she said. “And I want to get out of here before the cemetery closes. Why don’t you let me drive you home?· Your parents must be wondering where you are. We can talk on the way.”
“I can’t leave just yet,” the boy said, backing farther away.
“Why do you keep backing away from me? I won’t hurt you.”
“Just tell me about the joys of life. Please.”
Patti hesitated. “Well, I can’t take time right now to tell you very much,” she said. “The joys of my life were mostly with my family. My husband Mac and I had three children, Lisa, Diana, and Jimmy.”
“Did you love them?” the boy asked.
“Of course. They were my whole life. I loved them dearly.”
“What was life like when they were young like me?”
“Oh, good heavens, the answer to that would take all night.”
“Please tell me just a little. Please!”
Patti collected her thoughts. “Well, one thing was for sure. We were happy, and there was lots of love, even when we had problems,” she said with a smile. “Mac loved being a father. He disciplined the children when they got out of line, but never harshly. Being a mother came easy for me. I loved it. Diana used to say I held her so tight when she got hurt that I squeezed the hurt right out of her. Lisa had polio when she was young. It broke my heart to see her in pain, but with a lot of love, prayer, and a great doctor, she recovered. She was always her daddy’s favorite. Jimmy was the quiet one. He was a handsome boy. He looked very much like you. He’s all grown up now, but he’s still my baby, even though he gets upset when I make over him too much.”
“Did you ever take them to Disneyland?” the boy asked.
“Oh, yes. The first time, Jimmy fell in the water inside the Pirates’ Cave. He was just six, and I couldn’t get him to sit still. The water wasn’t very deep, though, and he wasn’t hurt. But he was scared and settled down in a hurry after that. He was soaking wet, and I remember that Mac wrapped him in my jacket and carried him back to the hotel. Later, we all had a good laugh about it.”
“Do you miss times like that?” the boy asked.
“Very much. But children grow up and leave. Mine come home sometimes, and I go to visit them. Of course, I enjoy spending time with my grandchildren, but there isn’t much I can do for them. They have everything. I don’t think anything will ever replace the joy I felt during those years when Mac and I had our own babies and lived in a small house that we rented in Benson. It was painted yellow with green shutters and had a rickety front porch. Mac was doing his residency at University Hospital then, and I had a part time job at the Medical Center. I miss all that.”
Tears again rolled down Patti’s cheeks. “For a while after the children left home, I had Mac, but now he’s gone too. We buried him here in the cemetery almost a year ago,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’ve tried to adjust, to start a new life, but no one wants much to do with an old woman who forgets things all the time, burns the breakfast toast, and cries a lot. Mac left me well off, but that’s not enough to make life worth living. I travel some and go out to dinner with friends, but when I return home, no one is there. When you don’t have someone close who needs you, nothing really matters.”
“I think you matter,” the boy said. “You just need someone in your life to care for. When I’m reborn, I hope I meet someone like you.”
“How sweet,” Patti said, again wiping away her tears. “Come on and let me give you a hug.”
“I can’t now, but maybe after I’m reborn—”
“You keep saying that. I wish you’d tell me what it means?”
“Like I told you, this is Babyland,” the boy said. “I belong here until I get another chance to live again—to be reborn. I’m not a baby now, but I was when my mommy and daddy brought me here. I was almost a year old.· Now I’m twelve.”
Patti understood what the boy was saying but found it difficult to believe. She reached out to him again, and again, he backed away. But unlike the times before, he continued to back away.
“Don’t go,” she said. “I want to hear more about you.”
“The caretaker is waiting at the gate to let you out of the cemetery,” the boy said. “Leave now, and look for a child who needs your help to experience the joys of life. The child you find may be someone like me.”
With those words, the boy backed away until he faded from view. For a moment, Patti thought she had imagined him. But when she got back into her car and followed his directions, she had no difficulty finding her way to the cemetery gate.
As she drove home, she thought about the boy’s parting words. She liked the idea of finding a child who needed her, and she could well afford the time and money it would take to help that child experience all the joys that life has to offer.
By the time she arrived home and pulled into her driveway, she had made a decision.
“By golly, that’s what I’ll do,” she said with a big smile. “It’s just what I need. And I hope the child I find is one who has waited for another chance at life, one like the boy I met tonight in Babyland.”
Copyright © 2015 Frank Zahn. Published in The Criterion, Volume 6 Issue I February 2015; The Writings of a Curious Mind: A Collection of Essays, Memoirs, and Short Stories, Vancouver Books (Kindle Edition) 2017.